Lessons in creativity

A friend of mine, who is also a great tango dancer, published a post (HU only) a while ago about the things he (or anyone) could do to become a better tanguero. He used a method he learnt from a colleague:

if you have a problem, list 20 potential ways of solving it. Finding the first 7-8 will be extraordinarily easy; with some difficulty you’ll get up to 15; finding the last five will be hell on earth.

Of course becoming better at anything lies not only in finding methods, but also, and especially, in applying them; and while I doubt any single one item on the list can in itself make wonders, no matter how diligently applied, it seems common sense that having several ideas and mixing them according to needs and possibilities it a good way to go forward.

So I challenged myself to a list of 30.

My list, of course, concerns Oriental dance and how I (or others) can become better at it. Here it is:

  1. practice as often as you can.
  2. learn with different teachers; take workshops.
  3. dance in a troupe.
  4. dance solo.
  5. work your own choreographies.
  6. work other dancers’s choreographies.
  7. learn about the use of space and directions.
  8. improvise.
  9. focus on technique.
  10. focus on expression.
  11. take every chance to perform. Perform to your best each time.
  12. go to haflas and concerts: dance for the fun of it.
  13. take part in at least a few contests.
  14. get feedback from professionals: your teachers, contest judges, etc.
  15. get feedback from fellow dancers.
  16. get feedback from non-dancers (or non-Oriental dancers).
  17. see the masters: if you can’t see them live, DVDs and Youtube are your friend.
  18. watch oriental dance in any and all of its forms, from the street to the grand theatre.
  19. listen to all kinds of Oriental music. Learn songs.
  20. work with musicians.
  21. learn how to work with a drummer.
  22. improve your communication with the audience.
  23. learn the gestures of wherever your dance style comes from.
  24. learn (at least some) Arabic (or Turkish, or…).
  25. go to Egypt / Turkey / Lebanon (and/or wherever your favourite style has its roots), if you have the chance.
  26. meet people from the Middle-East / North Africa. Talk to them. Listen to them.
  27. learn about Middle-Eastern history and culture: read books, articles, watch films (that’s where speaking the language comes in handy 🙂 )
  28. learn about the history of the dance.
  29. read poetry from the region, folkloric and otherwise.
  30. learn about the societal contexts of dancing.
  31. learn especially about concepts of femininity.
  32. learn folk dances of the region.
  33. try out other dance styles.
  34. start teaching. Make sure you’re prepared to do it.

+1: blog about it: the things you find best to share are the most useful for you as well.

Feel free to add some more in the comments.

Oriental Romance

This weekend we have workshops with Özgen, Mayel and the lovely Lou Pradas – who organises the event –, as well as a great show Saturday night at the heart of Brussels, with some of the best dancers from Belgium and abroad. I have the honour of having been invited, and I'm preparing a completely new dance for the occasion, which means I'm also terribly nervous, but I promise it will be a great night.

One (or maybe both?) of Özgen's workshops is already sold out, but there should be some places left for the others.

For the show, pre-sales closes tomorrow the 7th of November, so if you want to be sure to have a place, contact Lou for your ticket.

See you there!

Dancing September

This September has been quite hectic – and full of dance. And though it's almost the end of the month, the good part is yet to come.

I'm writing this update from a small hotel room in Rimini, where I am taking workshops with the legendary Fifi Abdo (!!), one of my favourite dancers, over the weekend. I am also competing tomorrow – her being on the jury – and the only reason I'm not fizzling with nerves is that I've just spent about 8 hours travelling and I'm simply exhausted. Wish me luck, though.

What's more, next weekend, I'll be in Barcelona for some more workshops, this time with the ever so inspiring Mercedes Nieto. I also have the honour of having been selected to perform as a member of Mercedes' Tarabesque Troupe at the festival gala show. The show has quite an impressive line-up – I hope I'll have the chance to see most if not all of it, even though I participate. For those of you who will be in Barcelona next weekend, you can find more info here if you'd like to come – I can only recommend that you do.

If you cannot, but are in Brussels and would like to learn the dance, join my course starting next Monday!

Or click on the photo below to see all the pictures from last Saturday's Oriental Cocktail Festival.

NEW! Oriental dance course for beginners

Come and learn this beautiful and artistic dance form in an open, friendly and fun environment!

New weekly course for beginners in Schaerbeek, Bruxelles.

Time: every Monday from 18:15 to 19:45
Place: Espace Mutin, Chaussée de Haecht 140, 1030 Schaerbeek

Price:
single class: 15 eur
5 classes: 70 eur (valid for 5 weeks)
10 classes: 135 eur (valid for 12 weeks)

Classes start on Monday the 25th of September.

For more info and registration, please click here.

 

The dancer on two wheels (pt. II.)

Beverlo is about 3 hours distance from Bruxelles by public transport. Eindhoven is about 50 kms from Beverlo. One of my favourite musicians, Totó la Momposina, gave a concert in Bruxelles on the day I was away in Aarschot/Betekom to perform. She gave another concert, in Eindhoven, a week later, on the day there was a whole-afternoon open stage festival – organised by Johanna – in Betekom.

Guess what.

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I felt a bit bad about rushing in and leaving so early from the festival, even though the real choice was not between staying a little or a lot: it was between staying a little or not going at all – I had a ticket to a concert, after all, about 50 kms away.

This time I printed my itinerary – I didn’t have the time to get lost and find my way –, nevertheless, I stopped every now and then at a map along the road (by the way, the region is indeed a biker’s paradise, as it advertises itself) to check if I was where I should be. At one of these, just this side of the border, I ran into another biker.
‘Are you lost?’
‘No, just making sure all is ok’
‘Where are you headed, anyway?’
‘but… that’s some 40 kms away!’
‘I know’, I said, though I was a bit perturbed, as I had counted it couldn’t have been more then 30.

Indeed, it wasn’t: I even had time for a coffee/snack break and arrived in good time.

Totó la Momposina is 77 years old now, still she sings and dances through her concert. She explains about each song and musical genre they play: about their history, the related traditions, the dances, the instruments, and the lyrics, making the show as much of an educational experience as it is fun, artistic and festive. She also gives credit to all the composers, except for herself – it’s the members of the band who have to do it for her.

Totó la Momposina – y sus tambores

The fact that I planned to cycle along the Zeeland coast  the following two days , but not only I had to come home and spend the whole week at home, three weeks after I still don’t have my voice, is another story. The “three weeks after” part may or may not be due to some other factors as well, stories for another day. So, have I at least done something stupid?

 

Arrival 3.0 – The dancer on two wheels (pt. I.)

It’s hard to tell a story while I’m living it (for the lack of time, if nothing else); on the other hand, I prefer not to write when I’m ill, to avoid (publicly!) documenting those moods – hence the delay.
A friend asked me, when I told him, “have you at least done something stupid, to get so sick?”

I’ll leave that to you to decide.

The story starts on Friday, May 26th, a day off work. Having run some errands, which of course took more time than I’d though they would, I left Brussels at 12.30, an hour later than planned. I say I left Brussels, but this being a biking trip it took me about an hour more to get out of the city.


You’ll never hear me complain about it, but it was hot. And I had a headwind. And I got lost twice, first at Haacht and then at Aarschot, where my phone’s battery died, leaving me without a map.

Google hugely overestimates my cycling speed: I arrived to Diest at 6pm, sweaty, tired and more proud than ever.

But why was I cycling to Diest on this Friday afternoon to begin with? Why, if not for the love of dance. I was headed to a folk festival named Dafodil.
Until I joined the folk scene, I only knew gigues from J.S. Bach, mazurkas from Chopin (I played some, in fact), and the only valse I knew was Viennese. It makes quite a difference do be dancing them. And dance I did, on that warm and lively night, under the open skies.

 

As the next day proved, Diest happens to be a lovely, if quiet, old town. So is Aarschot, where I had lunch, though it’s less quiet, as expected from a larger city.

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My destination, however, was Betekom, where I danced at a charity dance show organised by my friends Llady May and Saratis, an event as warm, welcoming and fun as anyone could wish for.
Saratis even offered me to stay at her place, even though we’d never met before the show! She and her boyfriend have two dogs – and had a third one over as a guest –, a couple of cats, maybe two? a turtle, a rabbit, and some small chicken. And possible some more I haven’t seen – an amazing household indeed.

Coincidentally, that night was also the 3rd anniversary of my arrival to Belgium. I couldn’t have wished for a better celebration than that hafla with my dancer friends, and that weekend as a whole. When I came back last September, I decided I’d play at being new in town until and unless I felt at home. It took me long, eight months since then, almost three years altogether, but now I am finally truly arrived.

the dancer on two wheels (photo by Ludo Vanlangenakker)

Friendly competition

I was ten years old when I went to this poetry reciting contest at the encouragement of my schoolteacher, where I was awarded the fourth place.  I cried all the way home: no-one could convince me that it wasn’t a failure.

Ever since, I had a certain aversion to competitions. I did take part in a few, mostly in academic ones (the national contest for high school students and the like), was successful in some of them and less so in others. I avoided non-academc ones for fear of failing again.

I was 18 when I signed up to a dance contest as a soloist. I played finger cymbals (ever heard about the “Let’s Screw Ourselves” Movement?),  I had a costume malfunction, and a jury who was not inclined to appreciate my style, to put it nicely.

It took me more than ten years to go to a dance contest again. Since last summer, I went to five different contests, the last one being at the  Cairo by Night festival last weekend. And finally, I learnt how to compete. Of course, I’ve always known, in a rational way,  that a contest is a means to learn, an opportunity to meet fellow dancers, a chance to get feedback from the masters and from the members of the audience – dancers and non-dancers alike. That it is a way to expose myself and be seen, with all the advantages and challenges of being seen. But now, finally, I internalised it. Finally, I can truly enjoy watching fellow contestants. Finally, I can truly appreciate all the feedback I get, even if some of the critique I get still hurts. Finally, I can heartily congratulate the both winners and the ones I like the best (and I’ll admit sometimes they are not the same, though this last time they were).

Finally, I learnt the meaning of friendly competition.

Three lessons from an intense weekend

I am just pulling myself together after a weekend of workshops with the one and only Mercedes Nieto. As usual, her workshops, all three of them, were amazing, as usual, she wore us out completely, and, as usual, her concepts were at times a lot more difficult to grasp than the dance technique she taught, which, I should add, is something to say, for her technique is anything but easy. The weeend was complete with a Saturday evening show starring Mercedes and featuring a number of other beautiful dancers and a live ensemble, where I also had the honour to perform.

Obviously, much of what I learnt is non-verbal – it was a dance weekend, after all –, but here are the 3 most important lessons I took away (and I can put into words):

  1. Even sadness can be light.

The first workshop was about lyrical and dramatic expression in oriental dance, and befre we dived into how to express any of that, we needed a way to define them and tell them apart. Most classical oriental songs are love songs, and few of them are happy ones – indeed, even those tend to have a touch of melancholy, so we won’t find it there. We might find it in the lyrics, but often a verse that would read rather dramatic makes for a much softer, more lyrical song. So wee looked at instrumentation, the use  of instruments, the layers and depth of the music as well as how the singer interprets the words in question. Of how much passion, hope and acceptance s/he puts into the song. Mercedes introduced an association of  something lyrical being lighter and drama being deeper, heavier, which accordingly led us to different dance techniques to express these qualities. She also said even sadness can be light – less dramatic, softer, airier than one might think – and I kept thinking of sadness accepted, of sadness I know will pass one day, of sadness so calm is becomes light.

2. Lost energy can (and should) be recovered.

In a dance context, we talk about energy as the momentum that drives us though a series of movements, that makes the next movement a direct consequence of the previous one.  To experiment with this concept, we practiced a combination, leading this energy and reacting to it in turn, at the end releasing it completely to remain empty of it and restart, building it up again. I found myself somtimes losing it in the middle of the combination, distracted maybe by getting too close to the dancer next to me and wanting to avoid bumping into her or simply forgetting the next step, so I asked if she had any advice, should we lose our energy on stage. She did have a piece of advice, applicable to much more than dancing on stage: slow down, re-center yourself and focus on your body. 

3. It’s good to be carrried away by the music – but find your way out

This lesson doesn’t come from the workshops, but from the performance, and was offered by another fellow dancer, Fédra. After the show, she complimented me on how full of feeling I dance (I took it as a compliment, in any case). I danced on a deep, sad and somewhat conflicted love song, improvising to allow myself the flexibility to follow the live music – and I indeed got carried away. So much that I was not quite ready for the end of the song when it came. I doubt many have noticed it – the musicians communicated and understood me amazingly. Fédra, and possibly some other dancers, spotted it though, and she pointed it out, not only offering a valuable lesson for future performances, but also a great example of constructive feedback.

 

Classics, live

One of the things I truly enjoy in Brussels is that there are a lot of events relating to Middle-Eastern culture. There are indeed a lot more of them than I can attend, but not long ago I did go to two concerts, one with Ghalia Benali singing Oum Kolthoum, presenting her new CD, and the other with the ensemble Nagham Zikrayet paying tribute to Farid el-Atrache.

They were both great musical experiences. They also both presented Egyptian classics live, and, what was of special interest to me, in interpretations that were not adapted to dance.

– Ghalia Benali sings Al Atlal

Ghalia Benali presented Oum Kalthoum in a quartet format: oud, percussion, double bass and voice. She has a voice to fill a great hall but created such an intimate atmosphere it could have been a living room concert. I loved Benali’s take on the music, the jazzy tones, the intimacy, the modernity of her approach. I also couldn’t fail to notice how she made Oum Kalthoum more understandable, more easy to listen – for the Western ear –, how she commented on “the long piece”, Al Atlal, which she sang in its entirety (or almost) rather than a shortened version.
Which was quite appropriate: organised by Muziekpublique, the concert was held in the Théatre Molière for a general public (and by that I mean the usual Brussels mix of people). And for a general, mostly European audience, classical Egyptian music is not easy – we are simply not used to it.

– Nagham Zikrayet playing Farid el-Atrache

By contrast, the Nagham Zikrayet ensemble presented Farid el-Atrache’s music in a most classical way, with a full Oriental orchestra, that is 4 violins, a double bass, a keyboard, an oud, a kanoun and a ney, 2 percussionists, 3 vocalists, the lead singer, plus another singer who joined for the last song. They played the songs in full: we heard maybe five songs in a concert more than 3 hours long.

– an oud, a qanoun and a ney (photos by: openDemocracy, Ozanyarman & Nerval)

It was also a concert organised, as the hostess of the evening said, “to guard our cultural identity and pass it on to our children”. The public, accordingly, consisted mostly of people of Middle-Estern/North African origin, roughly from 7 to 70 years of age. It has to be mentioned though that no matter how traditional the setting, Nagham Zikrayet is a mixed group both in terms of gender and of ethnicity. The fact that such an orchestra would have women and non-Arab (Western-looking) members surprised me and was further emphasized by the hostess of the evening, who expressed how happy she was about this mix.

I sat between an elderly Hijabi lady and a man who, through our admittedly very short interaction, never thought I may not understand Arabic. I was clearly an ousider – and yes, that made me feel awkward. It was also a powerful learning experience, though I’d be hard-pressed to put into words that glimpse of understanding I gathered there. Events of this kind – organised by and/or for the local Arab community – is the closest I get (for now) to Middle-Eastern culture.

And yet, I didn’t see almost anyone from the Brussels oriental dance community.

If you’re a dancer and have the chance to see Arabic music live, don’t miss it. Even if, no, especially if you find the music difficult: this kind of music is best enjoyed live.

If you are not a dancer? Go anyway. There is a lot of beautiful music to find.